There’s a dance to these days before an All-Ireland final. Of course a manager fixates on the opposition team and plans and plots and wonders. But when the cameras and recorders are in front of you and you step up to bat away the usual questions you don’t want to give the impression that you bothered much about anything: that you’re as carefee as Huck on his raft. Here was Limerick manager John Kiely on the similarities between Cork 2021 and Limerick 2018: fast, young, hungry upstarts brimming with ambition.
“Maybe, time will tell. For us, I’m not really too concerned with the path others take, that’s for them and for their reflections. For us, we’re just concerned about our own path and incremental improvements from the first game against Cork, the Munster final against Tipperary, and again last Saturday against Waterford. We took it up another gear and again next weekend we’ll be looking to take it up another gear. And hopefully produce our best performance.”
Kiely is one of the most thoughtful and reflective figures in Gaelic games but it’s easy to see why he didn’t want to explore this avenue in great detail. It’s a dangerous walk. The logical outcome of Cork as Limerick 2018 is that they finish the year as champions. And Limerick closed out last year’s championship with such a comprehensive statement - that 10 point victory over Waterford in an icy, silent Croke Park was the sound of a door slamming through the hurling strongholds - that he probably doesn’t need to fret too much about the paths of others.
Limerick are in the midst of a period of earned privilege. After that 2018 win, Kiely made a memorable speech in which he stated the hope that the win wouldn’t change the group. They’ve won another since and saved perhaps their finest hour for the Munster final this year. Through it all is the sense that one of Kiely’s chief qualities is his ability to help his squad remain clear eyed.
“It’s obviously very satisfying to be in the final but it’s no good being there unless you perform, and I know what that’s like. Of course the boys have been through a lot over the last few years, as much as there’s been success, in their own lives they’ve had the normal challenges, and the last couple of years have been particularly challenging. Some members of the group have lost family members and friends, all those grounding experiences and tragedies, stuff which is real above and beyond sport.
“We’re all aware it’s a very privileged position that we’re in as a group, and that we need to be cognisant of the fact that it’s a privilege and an honour, something to be treasured, not something for us to feel that is has made any difference to us other than this is what we do, we play sport, we play hurling. So humility is a big factor in our group and I’d hope that can be seen in how they play. They’re united, they play for each other, they play for the group and they play for the jersey - and not for themselves.”
On the day of Limerick’s semi-final against Waterford, his daughters, Aoife and Ruth visited Kellie Harrington's house to have their photograph taken. They ate and drank the Olympic Games; they are too young to remember Rio so the sudden explosion of Irish sports stories has been like Christmas in summer.
“They’re fans and look up to athletes like that as well, dreaming of what might be for them, too. It’s great: it’s great for Dublin, which had a really tough time with Covid. It’s great for every community to have sportspeople to do something to lift the spirits, it’s their turn this time. It’s fantastic.”
That afternoon, Limerick won: the perfect day. Kiely travelled home on the train with the team that night and was on the road to Dublin the next morning for the Cork-Kilkenny semi-final. What he saw: a resurgent Cork side, throbbing with confidence after coming through what was, given the outcome, the perfect test of moral character and physical stamina. And it was a vivid advertisement for their frightening speed.
“It’s a huge asset in any on-pitch game,” Kiely says.
“I know a lot is being made of Cork’s speed but I assure you we’re not slouches ourselves. Maybe more teams have incorporated it as part of their game, there’s less long delivery of the ball from one end of the ball to the other, and possession is valued more highly. As a result there are more support runners supporting the player in possession.
“It’s all part of the evolution of the game, coaches bring in parts that become wider aspects of how teams play. That’s what I think we’re seeing.”
Its potency will become clearer on Sunday afternoon. The champions are favourites but Cork have that talent and the blueblood heritage to make it an intrigue. Plus: they have beaten Limerick in recent times.
“In 2019 they came here and put in a huge performance, they blew us away in the Munster championship, we didn’t perform that day,” Kiely remembers.
“The narrative of being a bogey team I don’t buy into, these games are all on the day, we all have our parameters around what we’re chasing - we’ll go after it the way we’ve always done, we’ll prepare hard and well and we’ll try to bring the best performances we can bring.”